Technological advancements are resulting in trends and movements that improve the quality of life and business. One such trend is the ‘distributed workforce’, wherein organizations are willing and able to employ personnel without any strict requirements for physical presence in offices. Time saved by avoiding long commutes has been utilized to increase employee productivity as well as work-life balance. Research in 2016 found that around half of US workers held jobs that allowed them to work remotely at least part of the time.
Unfortunately, technological advancement often engages in a tug-of-war with security. This rise in remote working has led to a host of security challenges that attackers continue to leverage while targeting enterprises. Whether it’s lack of awareness, lenient policy enforcement, or deceptive attacker techniques, the result is a likely breach with serious repercussions. As cyberattacks can come with significant monetary consequences, the business risk is real and present.
Distributed Workforce Security Challenges
It’s All In The Cloud
Although cloud adoption has increased across the board, employees working from home are much more likely to use a range of cloud-hosted applications to perform their daily tasks. While applications bought for and maintained by employers are generally more secure, employees tend to use multiple open-source and free-to-use applications for actions ranging from file conversion to file transfer across systems.
Each application added to a company’s ‘fingerprint’ increases the chances of compromise, both due to employee login data that can be vulnerable and the actual company files that are stored/converted/transferred using these applications.
I Spy A Wi-fi
When employees work from home or any public place outside enterprise networks (such as coffee shops), they leave their devices open to attack because of security risks inherent in public wi-fi networks. Attackers can mimic public wi-fi networks and trick their targets into joining the fake network, or attackers can join a legitimate public wi-fi network and tunnel into target devices (especially if employees have turned on their device discoverability).
Late last year, there was a root access bug uncovered in a popular device that allowed attackers to gain administrator access on target systems and cause dangerous levels of compromise. While that bug is patched and fixed now, the security threat of public wi-fi networks remains.
The most secure cyberdefenses cannot stand up to human error. Even if organizations are aware of security threats and communicate them to employees, ingesting and retaining this communication is often not incentivized enough (or not interesting enough) for employees. This leads to reduced awareness levels and employees repeating the same mistakes that - if they’re working remotely - are much likelier to lead to successful cyberattacks.
What Can We Do?
Improving organizational security for remote workers is not rocket science, and many points this article mentions might seem self-evident. Nonetheless, it’s surprising how often simple fixes go ignored. The following suggestions are a good starting place to ensure that organizations stay secure while continuing to promote the positive aspects of remote work.
Make sure that employees use strong passwords and that they use different passwords across systems. A single password used across applications might be convenient but it then takes just one vulnerability to compromise all the employee’s accounts. For guidelines on password strength, you can refer to NIST’s latest identity guidelines.
Historically, lengthy passwords with a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters are less likely to get breached through brute force. Contrary to popular opinion, NIST recommends against changing passwords regularly. Employees usually change just a couple of characters from password to password this way, leading to confusion without increased security.
VPNs Are A Must
Whether employees are working from home or any other public location, organizations should ensure that Virtual Private Networks or VPNs are used. By combining encryption protocols and virtual P2P connections, VPNs protect any sensitive company data that employees might access while connected to non-enterprise public/private networks.
There are various VPN protocols out there: some provide encryption, some facilitate connections, and some do both. Protocols such as SSH, SSL, or TLS fulfill both duties (encryption and connection) and should be preferred by organizations that aim for security as well as convenience.
Awareness Programs With A Twist
Security awareness programs delivered through dry, text-heavy presentations are unlikely to have the intended effects, no matter how positive the intent. A few tactical tweaks to awareness programs can drastically improve uptake:
- Including interactive, engaging assignments as part of the training. For example, a ‘design your own phishing email’ contest where employees come up with their best phishing emails.
- Encouraging and rewarding employees that show ‘good security behaviors’ and sharing their successes with the group.
- Learning from security failures and sharing with transparency to avoid repetitive mistakes.
- Creating a culture of openness and blamelessness so that employees that have made mistakes come forward honestly without fear of being punished.
Update, Patch, Maintain
Devices with out-of-date software, certificates, and agents create conditions where compromise becomes easier and more likely. Organizations should monitor the version recency of operating systems, SSL certificates, and security software (such as firewalls and endpoint tools) on all employee devices and especially those that avail of remote work.
Although any deficiencies along these lines won’t create security incidents on their own, they will weaken a device’s ‘immune system’. Attackers will usually scan devices for these deficiencies and target accordingly.
These solutions are by no means exhaustive, but they represent ‘first-pass’ guidelines that organizations can set up and build upon. Even with all these precautions (and more) in place, it’s inevitable that breaches will occur. But by being proactive in defense and agile in response, organizations and their remote workers stand a good chance of coming out on top.
This article was originally published on Forbes.
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